Monday gloom for rail commuters

Norfolk commuters heading to work in the capital could be forgiven for having a particularly bad case of that Monday morning feeling today.No matter how relaxing or enjoyable the past two days have been, getting the train to Liverpool Street will bring on a weary sense of trepidation and genuine concern about what the day has in store.

Norfolk commuters heading to work in the capital could be forgiven for having a particularly bad case of that Monday morning feeling today.

No matter how relaxing or enjoyable the past two days have been, getting the train to Liverpool Street will bring on a weary sense of trepidation and genuine concern about what the day has in store.

When will they see the platform at Norwich or Diss again? Will they enjoy dinner with the family tonight or spend another evening on station platforms and in cramped carriages?

The freak combination of damage to overhead lines, an accident during their repair and a derailed freight train in recent days brought chaos to a service on which hundreds of local commuters rely - and pay thousands of pounds a year to use.

It prompted a letter of apology from track owners Network Rail and train operator National Express East Anglia - plus a huge PR exercise - as they attempted to show just how much was being spent to improve the line. But it is questionable how well the word “sorry” was received after five agonising days during which the train did not take the strain and promises of long-term improvements probably failed to dispel frustration about the current rail system.

All three incidents proved that the ageing network goes into meltdown when even a small section of track is out of action. So, how can we be confident that it won't happen again?

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Pete Biggs, of independent rail consumer group Passenger Focus, said its own survey had shown that only 36pc of passengers were happy with the value for money offered by the train company and 31pc were happy with the way it dealt with delays.

“The delays on the line last week will have caused misery for passengers,” he said. “They come on top of a string of delays on this route caused by overrunning engineering work in August 2007, New Year 2008 and Easter 2008, where poor inform-ation to passengers compounded the delays. Passengers deserve better: the rail industry has to do better.”

National Express East Anglia is not directly accountable for the latest problems, but, as the face of the service and as the agent which takes the fares, it surely has a duty to work with others to ensure that the line is fit for purpose, reliable and giving value for money? Commuters travelling between Norwich and London fork out £6,000 for an annual season ticket - an inflation-busting increase of 6.4pc on last year. Day return fares rose by 7.9pc, to £41.

Its joint letter with Network Rail told passengers that £200m was being spent over the next four years on replacing overhead lines - some of which are 40 years old. But some believe the investment should have happened decades ago and that Network Rail is now playing a massive catch-up game.

“The equipment is life-expired, and because of the pressure all over the UK rail system it's a question of priorities what work Network Rail gets done first,” said Peter Lawrence, Norwich-based president of campaign group Rail Futures. “Work is going on between Liverpool Street and Chelmsford, but it's going to take a couple of years or so to get completed and I'm fairly sure this will happen again.

“Successive governments did not treat the railway system in a sensible way, give it the proper investment it needed years ago, and there is now some big catching up to be done to make it a first-class system. The way forward is for Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk to get together with Network Rail and National Express East Anglia and discuss the situation if we want to prevent it happening again.”

A decent transport set-up between Norwich and London is not just vital to passengers but to the Norfolk economy. A delayed train is frustrating and affects the punctuality of all on board. Meetings, interviews and conferences are missed or arrived at late. It shatters business morale and image and could harm growth. Long journeys make for less productive workers too.

Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, said: “Good transport links are vital to Norfolk's business growth, and, together with the dualling of the A11, a reliable train service is essential.

“Many of Norfolk most successful businesses have a large number of customers, and often investors outside the county, who need to visit them using the rail network.

“A disrupted service does nothing for Norfolk's image as a vibrant business centre, and there are numerous examples from our business membership of frustrated journeys. The transport of people and services is vital for the growth of the Norfolk economy, and Norfolk deserves, and must demand, better links by both rail and road.”

Her concerns were echoed by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who last year helped to set up a cross-party rail committee with Norwich North MP Ian Gibson and Richard Bacon, MP for South Norfolk.

“It is very bad for the Norfolk economy,” he said. “People will not use the railways if they are not confident it will get them to their destination on time. If you have a meeting in London you can't be absolutely sure you will get there, so some people get a train the day before and stay the night. People are having to leave a margin for error, and I know that feeling of: 'Shall I get that train?'You feel you are taking too much of a risk.

“I would be happy to revive the rail committee; I positively want to do that. I know these delays were caused by all sorts of reasons, but we need to get all of the parties in front of us in a public session; I would say particularly Network Rail, as I am concerned about their responsibility to get the work undertaken given the £55m in bonuses they have been paying their top people.

“The most serious problem we've got is the consequence of the long-term failure, which goes back many years, to invest in the infrastructure of this line. The overhead power lines problems are down to neglect - what in my view is criminal neglect of this line over the last two decades.

“We are catching up but not fast enough. The investment package is taking too long. It's completely counter-productive because people will be forced back into cars again, and that's the last thing we should be doing in terms of climate change and getting people back on the railways.”

Dr Gibson was disappointed by the media response from Network Rail, in which it sought to talk about its success over the past five years.

“That doesn't match people's experiences,” he said. “It's horren-dous. You get periods when it's OK and then it goes to pot again.

“They continue to say sorry and pretend everything is ok when what they should be doing is saying what they need to do to make it right.

“I feel sorry for the staff who must feel embarrassed. It's not their fault.

“All the engineering work that goes on all the time delays journeys, and it doesn't seem to have made any difference whatsoever.”

A spokesman for Network Rail said it recognised passengers had had a dreadful time and was awaiting the results of an investigation “to see what lessons need to be learned”.

A train trip to London can be a pleasant journey of about two hours and in 2008 should never be an exhausting mystery tour of stations and bus services. While the two comp-anies may have worked together for their apology, the key step now is to retain that united front, resolve any problems and give our region the rail line it needs and deserves.